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Criminal Justice Update

Q&A: Sarah Shendy, Copley Police Officer, OPOTA Trainer


Sarah Shendy, OPOTA trainer and Copley police officer, throws out an opening pitch for the Cleveland Indians in 2019. [Photo from the Cleveland Indians]

Sarah Shendy is a veteran Copley police officer, an OPOTA trainer and a Muslim woman who has had such a positive experience in policing that she would recommend the career to anyone, especially minorities. 

“A lot of minorities hesitate on coming into law enforcement because of their differences,” said Shendy, 34, whose family moved from Egypt to Ohio when she was 6.   

“But I want to highlight how my differences have been an asset to the job. Having that knowledge about your culture, your religion, if you speak a foreign language – those are huge aspects of law enforcement, and why not bring them to the team?

“God created us differently for a reason,” she continued, “and we bring such good things to the job when we work together.”

In the fall, she was honored as a Hometown Hero by the Cleveland Indians, throwing out an opening pitch at Progressive Field. For the occasion, On the Job caught up with the officer.

How did you get interested in law enforcement?

I get this question all of the time because of my background. I had a professor for a lot of my criminal justice classes at Kent State University, and, after I graduated, he approached me and said, “Hey, Kent State is bringing the police academy back, and it’s a big deal.”

I totally did not take the conversation seriously and started applying for jobs. I always wanted to work in corrections with kids, like juvenile delinquents. But I couldn’t find a job I liked and ended up going to the academy.

It was absolutely God’s work. I had always admired and loved and respected the profession, but, growing up, I didn’t think that I was good enough to be one of the men and women who protect and serve the country. On top of that, I’m the first and only one in my immediate family who’s in law enforcement.

And what has made you stay in law enforcement?

Every single day has been a blessing and an adventure. I fell in love with the camaraderie, the order, the paramilitary lifestyle. Besides people that I love, there’s nothing I admire more on this planet than professional law enforcement. What we do as police officers is like no other — what we do is save lives.

On top of that, it’s changed me as a person. I keep in touch with a handful of families who I’ve met under horrific circumstances. And they’re always like “thank you, thank you” and I’m like, “No, thank you.” We want that paycheck every other week so we can pay the bills, but where’s our fulfillment? If it wasn’t for those victims allowing us to be a part of their lives, that fulfillment wouldn’t be there, you know?

What is better than being a part of somebody’s growth and recovery? What’s better than knowing that person can get up, can be a mom, can be a dad, they can be effective at work and they’re going on with life despite the trauma that they faced — because of you.

When there is such a vocal anti-cop sentiment out there, how do you approach teaching your OPOTA class on community relations to officers who might already feel under fire?

This is what I tell other officers: It’s happened to me a handful of times, where, on a traffic stop or another call, the person comes at me sideways and is super-disrespectful, uncooperative. I tell myself, “You know what, that person could have had a really bad experience with law enforcement before, and I’m going to be the one to fix it.”

And I’ve told people that verbatim. I’m like, “Listen, I don’t know what kind of experiences you’ve had in the past with law enforcement, but I’m not the officer who you dealt with, and I would really appreciate it if you give me a chance to show you that we’re not all the same.”

How do people respond to that?

They’re shocked but extremely receptive. And even before that conversation takes place, I’m very cautious with my body language, with how I exit the cruiser. You know, do I approach them with a smile, do I extend my hand and shake theirs — a lot of it does depend heavily on the dynamics of the call, but I’m always like: “Hi, I’m Officer Sarah. The reason I’m here is this and this. How’s your day going?” I humanize myself. I humanize them and the entire situation. 

I tell officers all the time, “You make the uniform. The uniform does not make you.” We are a walking, talking billboard for our profession and the way we operate in public — are you inviting people to our profession, or are you scaring them away from it?

Sometimes officers come to my class, and they may not think the topic is as important as aptitude or building searches or weapon retention, but I’m like, “Listen, if you don’t know how to talk to people in this job, you can get yourself killed or you can set up the next officer that stops that car to get killed because you disrespected someone or because you failed.”

What do you wish every officer knew or thought about Muslims?

That we have more in common than we know with, not just Muslims, but people from different cultures and religious beliefs. In the OPOTA class I teach about Muslims, I tell people that we tend to fixate so much on the exterior and how someone looks, but, as cliché as it sounds, it’s the inside that matters. Whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Jewish, as long as you are a good person and a law-abiding citizen, we all have the same goals. 

How does being a female officer affect how the public reacts to you?

Sometimes the perpetrator or the suspect does try to test the water, but again it has everything to do with how you carry yourself and how you present yourself.

Police officers, detectives, we are not the only ones who read body language. Everyone reads body language, including kids. So I make sure that my uniform is always crisp and clean. I show up to the scene or the traffic stop with that kind of attitude of professionalism and nothing less. I’m going to respect you. We’re going to get this done, and you’re not going to walk all over me because I’m a female.

So tone matters a great deal.

Exactly. You get out what you put in — in terms of anything in life, including your job. I take my job very seriously, and I’m always learning things, whether it’s inside a classroom or outside. I didn’t go and get my master’s degree because I had a spare 20-grand lying around. I really value education and training, and I think that, as police officers, we lose the right to say no to education, to training, to being mentally and physically fit because other people’s lives rely on us.

I try to explain it to my parents because they’re like: “Why do you work out so much? Why do you carry off duty?” I tell them there’s no decision I make that is just about me. Other people are dependent on me, so if I’m not mentally healthy and I go through a call and I’m preoccupied, I risk my safety and the safety of everybody else on that call. If I’m not physically fit, God forbid we have a school shooting or a fire. I’m not going to go up to someone and be like, “Sorry, I couldn’t drag your son, daughter, brother, wife, whatever out of the school because I haven’t worked out in months.” 

I refuse to live with the fact that I could have done something, and it didn’t happen because I failed to plan. So that’s why I push myself mentally and physically every single day. I try to do something to prepare me for that moment that I hope to God I never have to live through, but in case I do have to react under extreme circumstances, I’m going to be ready. 

I mean it when I say that police officers protect and serve  — that’s what I’m going to do when I’m in uniform. That’s what I’m going to do when I’m out of uniform. It’s a lifestyle. You become a guardian, and I do feel a sense of responsibility and ownership with everybody around me. Always.